Longhorns in Love: Geography professors share love story

Elizabeth Hlavinka

They met in the flat planes of Botswana, sleeping in tents, cooking over a fire pit and living out of their suitcases.

Geography and the environment associate professor Kelley Crews and lecturer Thoralf Meyer met in 2006 when Crews arrived at the University of Botswana for research, where Meyer was running a lab. Although Meyer had lived in Africa for the past 20 years, he felt unsure of himself when his future wife walked into the lab.

“I was really scared of her,” Meyer said. “She was the kick-ass, hot cool professor.” 

Once Crews completed her research stint, she returned to Botswana to find Meyer leaving on a safari with his brother — and they had an extra seat. She came along, making their first “date” a three-week journey across the Botswana countryside in a Land Cruiser.

After their safari, Crews had to return to Texas while Meyer stayed in Africa, leaving the two with sparse communication. In addition to the inconvenience of an eight-hour time difference, the phone lines in Botswana were unreliable, and the mail system was even worse. 

With the Atlantic between them, Crews and Meyer resorted to occasional Skype calls, where Meyer had to drive to his office for 10-second bursts of communication. 

The distance between them shortened when Meyer moved to the United States to pursue his Ph.D at the University of Virginia. But Meyer, who was born in East Germany and had spent the past two decades in Africa, grew tired of life there, and was ready to move to Texas to be with Crews.

“I was basically planted from the bush in Africa to Charlottesville, Virginia, where you don’t know anybody and you don’t have wheels,” Meyer said. “I walked every single meter. I couldn’t go to the supermarket because it was six miles away. Texas is better.”

When Meyer visited South Carolina to meet Crews’ parents, the two were slightly more nervous than the average couple. Meyer was an East German native and Crews’ father was a World War II veteran who had been stationed in Germany. But the meeting went well, and in 2009 they decided to get married. 

Later that year, the couple hosted two small weddings — one in a castle in Germany and the other in Botswana, where their friends and coworkers still lived. In Botswana, they rented out an entire national park and were married as the sun set and the moon rose.

Afterward, the two agreed to spend four months out of the year in Botswana, returning every December and summer. Next year, they plan to purchase land and buy a home, but for now, they bring their sleeping bags and tent and live out of their suitcases — just as they did when they met.

“I can’t sit in Africa anymore and have the sun shine on my belly and drive around in the Kalahari Desert and things like this,” Meyer said. “[But] I still do that four months a year. Everybody needs to cut back somewhere in any relationship, not just because of different nationalities.”

They said they feel at home both in Austin and in Botswana.

“At some point, you’re tired of the internet speed being awful or not having electricity for four days and it’s 108 degrees and raining and you’re ready to get here,” Crews said. “But quite frankly there are times where we’re ready to get out of the U.S. where we’ll be in fresh air every single day.”

In 2010, the couple started a field study program in Botswana and now take a group of students there every summer for research. Crews said there are pros and cons to working in the same department as her husband, but that ultimately, it makes for efficient communication and teamwork.

“We not only work in the same department, but we co-supervise students, we teach a study abroad course together, we do our field research together,” Crews said. “That’s a pretty intense experience. It’s great because you have the best backup in the world. But if you had a bad day at work, you both had the same bad day at the same work.”

While Crews and Meyer sometimes still have to part ways for research and work, they spend the majority of their time together. Crews said she never thought a girl from a small town in South Carolina whose parents were staunch Reaganites would end up with someone from East Germany. But Meyer was the only person she has met whose personality fell so closely in line with hers.

“My mom always called me her little gypsy because I’d be sleeping in my truck so I could see something before I went to such and such, or [I went traveling] and [lived] out of a suitcase for three months,” Crews said. “And Thoralf was the same. He left Germany the first time when he was 21. We were both hardcore about what we did and wanting to make a difference.”

This article has been updated since its original publication.